AMERICAN HISTORICAL NOVELS discussion

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Historical Details and the Chicago Underworld

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message 1: by Michelle (last edited May 29, 2019 06:12AM) (new)

Michelle Cox | 122 comments Question:

Your historical details for this story (furniture, music, clothing, Chicago settings) add so much. How did you go about gathering these setting details? And how did you go about bringing the Chicago underworld characters to life?

My Answer:

I wish I had a good answer to that. Something like . . . I spent two years doing intensive research before I even started the series, but, alas, no. Many of these details just already live in my head. I’ve always had an affinity for the past and collect details the way other people might collect sea shells.

I adore big band music . . . to the point that it can make me cry. That’s not normal! A while back, I compiled a playlist of 1930s and 40s music and have been continuously playing this in my car for about three years now. (Can I just say that my kids hate me?) But listening to these songs not only transports me, but it adds to my understanding of people’s mindsets back then and also gives me hints about dialogue.

As for the furniture, one of the things I like to do on vacations is to tour old mansions or estates (another reason the kids hate me), and I try to catalog what I’m seeing as I walk through, though sometimes I cheat and buy the guide book in the gift store to jog my memory later.

The clothing is the only part I need help with. I can picture what they’re wearing, but I don’t have a fashion vocabulary in my head, so I did buy a giant book about fashion of the era which I refer to frequently.

Having lived in Chicago in my twenties and now living in the suburbs, many of the settings are already familiar to me, such as the Green Mill or Humboldt Park. And, of course, Mundelein College, the all-women’s college that Elsie (Henrietta’s younger sister) attends in Book 4 (A Veil Removed) of the series is my alma mater, so it was great fun to go back and dig through the online archives and explore. I thought I already knew everything there was to know about Mundelein, but even I was surprised by some of the things I uncovered. For example, when I attended, one of the highlights on campus was an old mansion, dubbed Piper Hall, that was original to the property when it was bought by the Catholic Church to build the school. What I didn’t know is that there was a twin mansion, Philomena Hall, also on the property, but that it was torn down in the 1960s to make way for a larger dormitory.

Lastly, I’m a period drama junkie. Being an anglophile and also married to a Brit, I think I’m watched every period drama ever made. Some of them don’t get the detail right, but many do, and I borrow their research. While I’m watching what is happening with the characters on screen, a part of me is always looking and collecting the detail in the background.

And as for bringing the underworld characters to life, being in Chicago, there’s an awful lot of Al Capone lore going around for the taking. In fact, every building in about a 200-mile radius of Chicago claims that it was a hide-out for Al Capone and his gang, complete with underground tunnels, ghosts or both. So it wasn’t hard to draw on that to create the Neptune villain. What was difficult was to paint him independent of Capone. It would have been unrealistic to not have him loosely tied to Capone, but I didn’t want this to turn into a full-on gangster tale. I was extremely lucky to find and interview a woman whose father and grandfather had mob connections, and she was able to explain how different mobsters were given certain “contracts” in exchange for favors, which I used as part of the plot in Book 4—A Veil Removed. She was an amazing woman to talk to with a lot of fascinating stories. I wish I could use them all, but I’ve been sworn to secrecy!

(Don't forget - each day I'll be drawing a name from the comments to win one of my books! I'll pick all of them - live! - on Friday.)


message 2: by Betty (new)

Betty (cuppy1) | 5 comments So if we came to Chicago we wouldnt be able to know for sure which or Where for sure Al Capone hide out? lol I thought you had to go to school there you knew so much about it. Sounds like it was a great school. Thank you for making sure your details are right, I enjoy the book more because they are correct


message 3: by Michelle (new)

Michelle Cox | 122 comments Betty wrote: "So if we came to Chicago we wouldnt be able to know for sure which or Where for sure Al Capone hide out? lol I thought you had to go to school there you knew so much about it. Sounds like it was a ..."

Ha! Yes, every place seems to claim to have hidden tunnels under it where Al Capone hung out when being chased by the cops. If this is true, it seems he spent more of his life below ground than above, which somehow doesn't sound very accurate.

Anyway, yes - Mundelein was a great little college. Right on Lake Michigan and next door to Loyola. It was smaller than my high school! It really was a very old, neat place - VERY art deco. Loved, loved my time there.


message 4: by Kim (new)

Kim Davis (kim4true) | 1 comments Though I had the pleasure of meeting you in Jefferson, Texas, in January, Michelle, I love reading about your process. I lived briefly in Chicago and feel drawn to set stories there, so you're info about how you do that helps me too.


message 5: by Michelle (new)

Michelle Cox | 122 comments Thanks so much, Kim! Glad it was helpful. It was great meeting you in Texas...! I'll see you in January, if not before!


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